When my kids were little the Pittsburgh Science Center was one of our favorite destinations, and “the ball factory” was our favorite thing to do.
The kids never tired of loading balls into the vacuum tubes that transported them to the other end of the exhibit, or placing them on the conveyor or in the vertical bucket-brigade. They loved to cover one of the openings with a foam board and watch how it accelerated the balls’ movement through the tubes.
All that changed on Saturdays. That’s when the Dads showed up. Entering the arena on the premise of “helping the kids,” they quickly took over, barking orders and inevitably nudging toddlers out of the way in the name of getting work done.
Even then I knew there was a lesson in this parody about the proper role of work, ambition and career beyond the obvious: Avoid the Science Center on weekends.
The Search for Meaning
In addition to providing for our families the work we do often is a central part of our search for meaning in the world. We all want to contribute, to belong, to make a difference. It is how we seek to answer the question, “What is the purpose of my life?”
Mid-life crises arise when, after years of scurrying to keep as many balls in the air as possible for as long as possible, they inevitably fall, and we find ourselves then asking, “What is the point?” “Does what I do make any difference at all?”
On Saturday mornings at least, the dads in the ball factory seemed oblivious to this problem; the work itself was the point, and it was sufficient.
During the early part of my career, before becoming a mom, that was true for me too. I loved working, and especially working hard. Tracking my time by the quarter-hour made me acutely aware of the value of my time, and I took pride in logging the most billable hours, even if that meant working nights and weekends. It was an unspoken challenge to see if I could be the first one in the office. I liked it when others noticed how busy I was because busy meant relevant, necessary, valued and important.
The Cost of Success
Becoming a working mother introduced a new tension and deeper questions to my motives and priorities. This is complicated territory in which many women struggle internally and with judgment from other women, so to be clear, I speak for myself only.
I valued the opportunity to continue working, even part-time. I gained new efficiency in everything I did because I was mindful that every minute wasted was time away from my family. However I began to struggle to find meaning in work relative to the great importance of parenting; what had energized and motivated me before now looked empty and irrelevant.
I yearned for home knowing that my time with my children was fleeting. Work in any circumstance looked like the ball factory to me: What difference did it make? What difference did I make?
Here on earth work is a necessary part of life. We need to provide for ourselves and our families. But is there a point beyond that? Can you serve God’s purpose through secular work? What is God’s view of work and career?
Growing up I learned that God meant work to be “toil.” Adam and Eve sinned, and God told them they would have to survive by blood, sweat and tears:
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food… (Genesis 3: 17-19)
At the peak of my cynicism about work I discovered Timothy Keller and his book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. In it he explores all human work — from janitor to CEO — as an act of worship. Keller outlines a Biblical view of work that focuses on serving others, suggesting this perspective as the key to building and enjoying a thriving career and maintaining a healthy work/life balance.
About that time I also was introduced to Randy Alcorn who suggests that in heaven we will have work to do:
The idea of working in heaven is foreign to many people. Yet Scripture clearly teaches it. When God created Adam, he “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Work was part of the original Eden. It was part of a perfect human life.
God Himself is a worker. He didn’t create the world and then retire. Jesus said, “My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5:17). Jesus found great satisfaction in His work. “‘My food,’ Jesus said, ‘is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work'” (John 4:34).
We’ll also have work to do, satisfying and enriching work that we can’t wait to get back to, work that’ll never be drudgery. God is the primary worker, and as His image-bearers, we’re made to work. We create, accomplish, set goals and fulfill them—to God’s glory.
Today I understand that work is a necessary means of provision for life here on earth, but also can be something good and even Godly.
We are the children of a creative God, so it is good to find joy in creating for its own sake (e.g., the duckbill platypus). Work can give meaning and structure to our lives if the meaning focuses on using our gifts to serve others whether they be customers, coworkers and/or our families.
Work becomes problematic when we engage in idolatry, which by definition involves taking a good thing and making it the only thing. I have struggled most with work when I have allowed it to become the source of my identity and self-worth, fuel to my ego and ambition, and the focus of too much time and energy (to the detriment of the family).
At these times I find it helpful to remember the ball factory. While there is undeniable satisfaction and joy in helping to move those colorful balls through the intricate labyrinth of tubes and belts and connectors, true joy comes in doing it with and for others.
At the end of the day all the balls will fall to the ground, and the lives of everyone who kept them moving will be unchanged by that reality.
Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.